After a seemingly abysmal offseason, the Suns have shocked the NBA universe with a 5-2 start. They’ve already toppled the Clippers and Sixers and look impressive even in their losses. We’re only a week in, but all signs are pointing to the Suns having turned a corner into competitive basketball—at the very least they look like a lock to hit the over on 28.5 wins (-120). There have been a lot of positive factors contributing to their early success, but one stands out among the rest, and it’s been a delightful surprise: Ricky Rubio. The silky Spaniard has steadied a teetering Suns franchise and is using his balanced skill set and clutch offense to keep things moving in the right direction.
It’s amazing what an experienced point guard can do for a young team. Rubio has turned the Suns’ ugly offense into a work of hardwood art, and the Suns are finally feeling what it’s like to play good team basketball. Rubio is an excellent passer, doesn’t turn the ball over, and knows when to take the open shot—everything you could want from your primary creator. He’s been able to quarterback a dynamite pick ‘n’ roll attack, making the most of the solid screening and range of the Suns bigs, Baynes and Kaminsky. And as a great off-ball mover and screener himself, he’s been able to provide floor spacing and fit seamlessly within the offense when others are initiating. But his best impact so far has simply been allowing Devin Booker to play at his natural shooting guard position. Booker was impressive as the primary ball-handler in prior seasons but doing so limited his scoring and took a toll on his energy. With Rubio at the helm, we’re all being reminded how lethal Booker is running off screens and stepping into open looks. If Booker can get open, Rubio is going to find him, and the smooth-shooting guard might find himself in his first All-Star Game.
The two are meshing well on the defensive end as well. Rubio may not be a lockdown defender like Pat Beverly, but he is a plus on defense and that’s been good enough. Checking the opposition’s best guard takes the pressure off Booker—who is not a good defender—and allows him to use his energy on offense (where he can do things like hang a 40-ball on the Sixers). The Suns are boasting the 7th best defensive rating so far, a significant leap from last year, and it starts with the balance Rubio brings to their backcourt. As we’ve seen with Houston Rockets (2nd worst in the league in points allowed), backcourts with two negative defenders really struggle. It’s important to have at least one guy you can rely on to put pressure on opposing guards, and Rubio is certainly giving them that.
Even more critical than his defense, Rubio is giving the Suns reliable crunch-time performance. It’s a small sample size, but Rubio is shooting 100% from the free throw line and from deep in 4th quarters this season. He’s never been much of a shooting threat but has been stepping confidently into open jumpers and cashing them. Against the Sixers, Rubio drilled two crucial jumpers to keep the Suns in the lead and squash any momentum that Philly had been gaining. A point guard who can hit big shots late within the flow of the game is like gold in the NBA—just ask the Toronto Raptors. Rubio keeps a level head in clutch situations and will give the Suns an edge in future close games.
Despite this early success, the question remains: can the Suns consistently play well through a full season? We’ve seen many teams get out to a hot start only to sink back into tank mode by mid-January. But with the Thunder and Warriors likely missing the playoffs, there’s a clear path to the postseason for the Suns and they look poised to make a run for it. They are sitting at +1300 to make the playoffs, incredible return for a team that has already knocked off the Eastern and Western finals favorites. Besides, the best thing for teams to weather mid-season slumps is a steady point guard. The Suns have that now; it might be time to take a chance on them.